Fight the School Culture Wars by Embracing Parents

Fight the School Culture Wars by Embracing Parents

When Republican Glenn Youngkin won the gubernatorial election last week in Virginia, the first statewide GOP victory there in more than a decade, it was widely seen as vindication of a political strategy to weaponize the school-board culture wars.

In truth, the school-board warriors around the U.S. weren’t as successful as some high-profile Democratic defeats suggest. Even in red states like Missouri and Wisconsin, many candidates who advocated bans on mask mandates and the supposed teaching of what culture warriors tendentiously call “critical race theory” were defeated.

But there’s no denying that Virginia parents were angry at Democrats. That was partly because a former Democratic governor had rebuffed their demands to reopen schools during the pandemic, even as children from neighboring Maryland, and even New York City, returned to classrooms with little ill effect.

Most galling of all, though, was the incendiary and misguided statement by the eventual losing Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, that parents shouldn’t be “telling schools what they should teach.”

To suggest that parents have no place in school decision-making is to deny the fundamental role of public schools as places for the teaching and practice of democratic values. Schools should want more parental involvement, not less, a matter of equal concern on both sides of the cultural divide. For example, in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter-school city, where charter organizations backed by Democrats and Republicans sought to marginalize parent and community engagement in schools, the backlash has been fierce.

At a time of growing calls for increasing student voice in school policies, it is also time to discuss how schools and districts should engage parents in conversation about school curriculums and policies, and not just as a way to counter politically motivated attacks.

Engaged parents — and school-family partnerships — have long been seen as a key ingredient for student success. It goes beyond having parents participate in class trips or ensuring that homework gets done.

“Parents have certain lived experiences in the community; if we want to be responsive, we need to understand the context of the communities,” said Mary Ellen Daneels, a civics expert and teacher mentor in Chicago, noting that many teachers don’t live in the communities where they teach.

While most parents trust their schools and their teachers, school administrators need to broaden lines of communication and strengthen alliances with school communities. This means holding frequent family meetings — including on Saturdays and in the evenings when it’s easier for working parents to attend (a gesture that alone would build goodwill) — to explain school goals, values and curriculum and how they are developed. Including parents on curriculum committees can offer educators fresh perspectives, identify potential trouble spots and build trust — though educators should have the final word on curriculum.

Teachers and administrators must also avoid debating hot-button issues like critical race theory, an academic concept that has been influential among some liberal educators but isn’t actually taught in K-12 classrooms. They should focus, instead, on what schools do teach, which are mostly lessons aligned with state standards.

“If you take the bait, you’re a fish,” said Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation.

In her days as a principal in Long Island, New York, Burris said she was willing to acquiesce to individual parents who felt strongly that their children shouldn’t read a particular book. If a parent objected, say to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — a target of the recent culture wars in Virginia and elsewhere — she’d  have the teacher assign that child an alternative book with similar themes.

“Nine times out of 10,” Burris recalled, the child would appeal to her parents to let her read the disputed book to avoid the feeling of being singled out.

Where school-board wars are most political, teachers have a valuable role to play in getting the message out about the policies and board candidates that are most aligned with the interests of kids and schools.

For example, when conservative groups backed challengers to four school board members in suburban Toledo, Ohio and inundated the region with robocalls and fliers, teachers fought back — reaching out to parents; texting friends, neighbors and former students; and posting on social media. School administrators, by contrast, “don’t have the space to be as political,” said Dan Greenberg, president of the local teachers union, who helped spearhead the resistance.

Ohio is now debating controversial and potentially punitive laws banning the teaching of “divisive concepts,” and over half of U.S. states have either passed legislation or are debating limits on how schools teach controversial issues, including race. Yet, on election day, all four challengers in Greenberg’s area were defeated.

Two years into the Covid-19 epidemic, schools have learned the importance of building partnerships with teachers, health-care professionals and parents to make their classrooms safe for in-person learning, and to persuade families to get vaccinated. Such partnerships should now be strengthened in the interests of academic policies and curriculum. Doing so will benefit kids and blunt the impact of political opportunists.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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